Jack Jolis: Military Intelligence in Saigon during the Vietnam War: Running a Clandestine Operation with Catholic Priests.
Above Photo: Psyops Ghetto Blaster: Helicopter fitted out with a speaker system (118ahc.org)
Jack Jolis was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for BACK.
PAL Jack were you involved in Psyops while you were in Military Intelligence in Saigon?
JJ: When I first got in-country, I became pals with some PSYOPS guys who were involved in leafleting operations. I asked if I could tag along on one of their missions and they said sure, and so I found myself up in one of a flight of Hueys with bales of propaganda leaflets.
The idea, of course, was to cut open the bales and drop the many thousands of leaflets over contested villages and hamlets, in this particular case in Gia Dinh province outside Saigon.
But from time to time we’d take fire from one of these villages, in which case, if the PSYOPS guys were particularly honked-off that day, they’d bung the 50-lb bales of leaflets out the Huey doors and onto the Charlies’ sorry asses un-opened. This was my first introduction to Vietnam’s famous “Sorry ‘bout that” ethos – and it was certainly fine by me.
PAL: Do you have any examples of what these Psyops leaflets said?
JJ: They were pretty much what you’d expect – “The communists bring only death and misery; come over to the Government side and they will see you right” etc – but they were quite artfully done, heavy on drawings, cartoons and photos (because a lot of the populace was illiterate), and they were certainly not without effect.
Back in those primitive pre-internet, pre-“social media” days, leaflets played a role whose importance we have difficulty appreciating today. Leaflets and also proselytizing teams – our PSYOPS guys and the ARVNS had these teams with loudspeakers mounted on jeeps, that would go into villages and broadcast pro-government messages and music. So the commies didn’t have the whole propaganda field to themselves – not by a long shot.
PAL: Were you involved in drafting the Psyops leaflets?
JJ: Naa, those were done by a special unit of our PSYOPS shop, working with the ARVNs. I only tagged along with them at the beginning, before I got assigned to specifically analyzing enemy propaganda (SRA) and, (also in conjunction with ARVN intel), mounting counter-propaganda – what you could call “meta”-PSYOPS — in all of which my French came in surprisingly handy.
PAL: Why did your French get so much use in counter-propaganda?
JJ: Well, first of all, you’ve got to remember that French was still the language of a lot of Vietnamese intellectuals and the political elite of all ideologies – for example, Uncle Ho himself was a founding member, in 1922, of the French Communist Party.
And so a lot of the propaganda and counter-propaganda campaigns, on both sides, were created and conducted in an atmosphere in which intellectuals, academics, clerics and journalists – many of them Francophone, if not actually French – figured prominently. (And although the US military was not primarily involved in the propaganda war, we were perforce involved in it as a result of the whole “winning hearts and minds” thing, and we were certainly aware that the war we were in was at least as political as it was military).
Anyway, back to French. Although the Army and its Military Intel were shot through with Vietnamese-speaking grads from the Army language school in Monterey CA, they found themselves with surprisingly few fluent French speakers, and, apparently none (other than myself) whose Frogue was good enough to actually pass for one. (Which I contrived to do on more than a couple of occasions).
PAL: Can you recount any other counter-propaganda operations you were involved in?
JJ: Well, nothing earth-shaking, or cloak-and-dagger – it was pretty mundane stuff, such as helping to edit and even ghost-write some anti-communist pieces for the local Francophone media — and seeing that documented evidence of communist atrocities found their way there. Providing friendly (to us) material to Francophone documentary-makers. That sort of thing.
You might say – and you’d be correct – that this was more properly the job of the CIA than the US military, but what the hell, I did it with the blessing of my uniformed bosses, and as far as everyone was concerned, the more the merrier. (At least in this field, there was no Army/Agency “turf rivalry”, and my French ability was viewed as useful, if a bit exotic.)
In fact, at one point, I was told to apply for membership to Saigon’s “Cercle Sportif”, the grandly self-important French neo-colonial equivalent of an American country club – a citadel of posh Franco-Vietnamese nobbery and snobbery that Yank military intelligence had never previously managed to breach. Neither, it turned out, was I to succeed – as this rather pathetically stillborn attempt occurred before Gen Abrams had personally taken control of my activities, and my hidebound “handlers” at J-2 wouldn’t allow me any kind of civvie “cover”, so that not even my native speaking ability, or my actual address on Avenue Foch in Paris or my actual membership of Paris’ fabled Racing Club – none of these could persuade the Olympian and no-doubt anti-American old fossils of the Cercle’s Membership Committee to approve my candidacy. I was, it seems, “un Ricain” too far.
But that failure wasn’t a complete waste of time – as a result of my rather amateurish approach to the Cercle I did thereby meet a French “academician” (a peculiarly French “occupation”, that – I don’t think I’ve ever met an American or an English “academician”) who gave me his coordinates and asked me to contact him. And when I did, and we had a coffee at the Hotel Caravelle later, he rather touchingly — as though he were confessing a terrible sin — admitted to me that he harbored pro-American sympathies towards our then-rather strenuous military exertions. (He came in handy later, when I was working for Abe.)
PAL: What else did you do Intelligence-wise in Vietnam?
JJ: Well, as it happens, this episode with the Cercle Sportif leads me to what turned out to be my most significant activity (and that for which I believe I was awarded my Bronze Star) which occurred towards the end of my tour (the last 2 months or so), when the Generalissimo himself, Gen. Abrams, picked me out of the “ranks”, so to speak, and gave me a “special assignment”.
PAL: What was it?
JJ: I’d already come to Gen. Abrams’ attention when, a few weeks previously, I’d been chosen to act as the sole interpreter between him and some extremely high brass on the American side, and the Vietnamese Ministry of Defense on the other, during discussions concerning the “modalities” (as they’re called) involved in the first stages of Nixon’s program of “Vietnamization” of the war. That had been a real hoot all its own — after the whole 10-day ordeal was over, while sharing drinks with all of these multi-starred muckamucks from our side, a “tired and emotional” CINCPAC (“Commander In Chief, Pacific”), Admiral John McCain (the ex-POW/current senator’s father) clapped me on the back and announced “Hey Lieutenant, here’s to you – what you pulled in there all this week was a real fuckin’ Coupe de Grace!” (pronounced “coop duh grayce”), to which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, Gen. Earle Wheeler, replied “Uh Jack”, (meaning the Admiral, not me), “I think what you mean is tour de force…”)
Anyway, so after that whole mega-dog-and-pony-show ended, and all the rest of the Brass had disbanded and vamoosed back to Honolulu and Washington, Gen. Abe ordered me to hang around and “keep myself handy”.
And thus over the period of a few days – evenings, actually, after “official hours”, usually over Johnny Walker and cigars (mine smaller than his) and with classical music playing on his tape machine in his personal trailer, which, for security reasons, was parked in a different spot each night – the General and I had some quite surprisingly intimate, (given my low rank, plus the fact that he’d only known me for barely two weeks), discussions concerning his vision of the whole political/propaganda aspect of the war.
And he proceeded to reveal to me this whole little private sort of “parallel” intel network he’d cooked up, all on his own, that was based around a few friendly Catholic priests and missionaries, both French and Vietnamese, here and there in South Vietnam and even one in the North, as well as the odd French writer and academic, that he’d somehow, God knows when, been in contact with and cultivated.
Problem was, his French was too rudimentary for him to properly exploit any of these guys by himself. Also, (it rather went without saying), he was busy with, ah, other, rather bigger things – but because of the “personal/religious aspect”, he didn’t feel like entrusting the running of his little intel net to “official channels”, and so he’d stumbled on me and decided to ask if I thought I could handle it. I said “I don’t see why not, sir.” “Good,” he said.
He told me to get into civvies, which I didn’t own over there — I had to go down to Tu Do Street and buy some ersatz Vietnamese jeans and poncey French shirts – and I got into precisely the kind of “light cover” that those J-2 idiots had refused to let me adopt when I was trying to join the “Cercle”. (The tell-tale GI haircut remained as an indelible Mark of Cain, of course, but the civvies did allow me to achieve at least a measure of “status ambiguity”. And I could still keep my sidearm, which I kept in an attaché case).
I was given a little signed internal Army memo saying that I was until further notice on “special assignment for COMUS-MACV” and was allowed to be “out of uniform”. (As far as my SRA buddies were concerned, I told them that Abe had asked me to tutor some of his staff in French, but the more I tried to explain the civvies, the more bemused they became – they thought I was just going dangerously “walkabout”, but I assured them all was kosher — and happily they all had other fish to fry, and didn’t press me.)
And so bit by bit, one by one, Gen. Abe began feeding me these contacts of his – two French priests, then a Vietnamese one, then a French author/professor, and so it went – there were about half a dozen in Saigon itself. And I started meeting with them, first at Saigon’s main Cathedral, and we expanded from there, having brief, discreet meetings. Sometimes in bookstores, the bus station, in little cheap soup/restos, cafes.
It was certainly a slow and plodding process — first I had to gain these guys’ trust, and then I had to find out what they might have that could interest/help us/the General.
A lot of it turned out to involve secret communist sympathizers and even cadres within the Catholic community and Vietnamese Ministries of Education and Culture. But of considerably more interest were their occasional reports of popular discontent in villages and regions that we knew to be under VC/NVA control.
These brave souls who made up Gen. Abe’s private little intel net had put up a facade of “neutrality” in their private and professional lives in order to survive in their difficult environments, but they were secretly quite anti-communist and were willing to help us clandestinely, as long as we/I could assure their security. That said, I can’t say that these characters were exactly a bundle of laughs – they were serious, preoccupied, even worried people. (And right to be so.)
PAL: Could you realistically do that? Assure their safety, I mean.
JJ: No, of course not – not in any meaningful sense. But what I could do was to operate with as much discretion and tact as I could possibly muster. And in this I really went out of my way to be careful – with everybody, including such US military “authorities” as the MPs and even with my own military buddies and colleagues, from whose orbits, as I said, I pretty much disappeared during those final two months of my tour.
To a certain extent I felt – on behalf of the whole US, if that doesn’t sound too ridiculously grandiose — in their debt, as it were, and I’d ask them if there was anything we could do for them in return. To a man (and I should mention here, although it should go without saying, that no one in this “network” knew of the existence of any other) they said they wanted no payment, and that they supported what we were trying to do, and all they wanted was to know that what they were passing on was of interest — “utile au General”.
When I mentioned this to Abe, he said it was a pity there wasn’t any way he could assure them of his appreciation, and later that night I had an idea which I passed on to him – how about taking a Polaroid of the General holding up a little note to the person in question thanking him for his help, which I’d show the guy, and then bring back? He liked the idea, and we proceeded to do it for most of these gentlemen, and it worked a treat – even the most austere among them seemed pleased as punch.
In selfish retrospect, I only regret that I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to have a picture of me taken with the General as well, as a souvenir. But believe it or not, it never occurred to me at the time, and thinking back on it further, now, I realize that it wouldn’t have sat right… although the two of us got along famously, one of the reasons for that was that we certainly didn’t have that kind of “star-fan” relationship. Perish the thought.
PAL: Did this operation have a name?
JJ: No, not that I knew of. In fact, as far as I could tell, it was so “compartmentalized” that it went scarcely beyond the General and me — if it went anywhere beyond us at all. No, as far as I could tell, it was just between him and me, and he called it, when necessary, simply “our project”. I do recall he had an aide-de-camp sort of guy who hovered around — a major I think – sometimes when we discussed this stuff, so he may have been aware. “Witting” as they call it in The Trade. But I don’t know of anyone else who knew of it.
Look, I don’t want to make this little operation into something bigger and more important than it actually was. On the contrary – in the Big Scheme of Things, it was the slightest of blips, not even a footnote to a footnote. In fact it was really just a private “sideline” project of Abrams’ – let’s call it a hobby with bite – which I just happened to be around to help push along a bit. For my part, I was just sort of flattered and gratified that he entrusted it to me.
Of course, I had no way of corroborating any of the intel I collected, and I don’t know to what use the General put it — but he seemed well pleased with it, and as far as I was concerned, that was all that mattered.
PAL: Where did running the operation take you to in Vietnam?
JJ: Mostly in Saigon itself but there was one French “lay missionary” who I met in the coastal town of Qui Nhon, and once I went up to Hue city to meet a certain Vietnamese priest at their, believe it or not, “Notre Dame” cathedral up there, but was disappointingly told that he’d “gone away” and was, “desolatedly, unlikely to return”, NFA (“no further information available”) – it was a rough place, Vietnam in 1969 — and not least for Catholic secret American sympathizers….
PAL: Did you ever go into North Vietnam?
JJ: God, no. No, I only mentioned North Vietnam earlier because one of the guys I met with in Saigon was a (not very famous, ostensibly left-wing) French journalist who could travel – after first going back to France each time – to both the North and South. He was mostly useful in giving us advanced warning of upcoming anti-American articles and, more importantly, “spontaneous” demonstrations.
PAL: What kind of things were the priests asked to do?
JJ: Nothing, really, other than to tell us anything they thought we ought to know. Remember, all of this was occurring in the often nuanced and subtle world of propaganda, psywar and sub rosa political influence – we would never ask them to do anything so bald and counterproductive as to write or plant – or preach — anything overtly pro-American. We were just happy to know they were out there, and to pick their brains. So to speak.
Actually, by far the most useful intel for us were their occasional reports of popular unrest and discontent in specific communist-controlled areas, both North and South, and both geographical and institutional – such as with war widows, etc. But I didn’t let on that we were especially interested in this stuff, lest it bias their reporting – above all, I was on guard against “fabrication”.
But otherwise, we just wanted them to lay low, and stay safe.
PAL: did you lose any of them?
JJ: No, not that I know of. But our meetings were more occasional than regular – these nice folks all had fairly stressful “day” jobs of their own, and were only what were known in the intel trade as “honorable correspondents”, so I could not exactly order them about – they were hardly professional intel “assets”.
Also, I wasn’t involved in this private network of Abe’s all that long – 6-7 weeks, max. Although before I DEROSed, I left with the General a sort of rudimentary commo system so that my successor, if any, could carry on. Remember, I had not yet been trained by the Agency, so my “tradecraft” was more or less picked up by myself as I went along, but it wasn’t too complicated – just a few code names, a few phone numbers, meeting signals and dead-drop locations at the National Cathedral in Saigon, with a nearby bookstore as an alternate.
PAL: Do you know what happened to this operation after your tour of duty was up?
JJ: No. But knowing General Abrams, I’ve no doubt he found a way to keep his little thing going.
Indeed, one of the main things I brought back from my tour in Vietnam was a fondness and respect for, and appreciation of Gen. Creighton Abrams, the old self-effacing tank commander who came and rescued our American mission over there from the follies of the hidebound peacock Westmoreland. Abe was a tough, wise and humorous gent, and one hell of a C.O.
(I don’t want to belabor the point, because I know I’ve made it before, elsewhere, but under Nixon and Abrams we actually won the war in Vietnam – an indubitable fact which is in no way negated by the subsequent fact that our victory was needlessly and criminally pissed away by the 1974 Democrat “Watergate Congress”, when it unilaterally cut off all aid to South Vietnam.)
PAL: Is there anything else you can tell me about your time in Military Intelligence in Vietnam?
JJ: Not really. Kind of you to ask, though.
Fact is, although I’m glad to have served over in “Vietnam, Republic of”, and proud to have done so, I do regret that I wasn’t able to do more. I feel I was underused – I am, after all, a good shot, and although I was under fire on numerous occasions, I only actually fired my M-16 “in anger” three separate times – and all those three times were in total confusion, at night, and I’ve no doubt at all that they were to no earthly useful effect whatever.
Still, I endeavored to do my small bit in a good cause – one which Reagan was big enough to later recognize as “noble”. (After all, whatever else you can say or think about American military involvement in Vietnam, one thing no one can say is… that we were in it for ourselves.)
And, best of all, I got to serve alongside the most extraordinary fellow Americans I’d ever met… (until, that is, I got to northern Laos a year later….)
Jack is a member of the Air America Association, the (US) Special Operations Association, and, in London, the Special Forces Club. He can be contacted here: email@example.com
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